(edited to add: stretch needles are NOT needles for stretchy fabric (those are ballpoint needles). stretch needles have a longer scarf which helps to avoid skipped stitches (but i don't know why)
right before the Bernina broke down, i had already been looking around for a new machine. a long-arm was out of the question (though i still dream of getting one). i also knew that i rarely used any of the fancy stitches on the Bernina and i straight stitched 99% of the time. some bloggers were talking about their Juki straight stitch machines and that seemed like an ideal solution. googling around, i also learned that Babylock and Brother had comparable machines. i went to visit a Juki dealer (who no longer is one) and specifically asked for the 2010 model. the dealer did her very best (and succeeded) in talking me out of the machine. i still can't figure if she was inept or if she was hoping to just sell me a more expensive model because i literally went in and said i wanted her to order one for me to purchase and she told me how Juki's are now made in China and are no longer reliable. it was very odd.
in the meantime, i had tried out the Brother at a quilt show and it worked great. Babylocks are sold by a LQS that has a shady reputation so i wasn't that interested in buying from them (that same LQS is now the Juki dealer). i did find a store (30 miles away so not too close) that sold Juki's, tried it out, and it seemed comparable to the Brother--so at this point, price was the only issue.
the Brother was anywhere from $200-$400 cheaper than the Juki! i got it for $600 on-line. i felt a bit guilty because a local dealer sold the machine as well but their asking price was $200 more and they wouldn't budge on the price. i have to say though, they have been nothing but kind when i've brought in the machine under the warranty.
the good thing about buying the machine online was that, even though it sews great out of the box, like any machine, there are quirks and learning curves--and if i had bought my machine from the local dealer (they're about 1 mile away from my house), i would've been bringing it in every other day because of questions i had--instead i had to figure it out myself. little things like learning how to use the automatic needle threader, or cleaning out the bobbin area & case frequently (little dust balls will cause skipped stitches when piecing).
piecing is lovely on the Brother--absolutely no complaints there. i was in love (and so happy with my bargain price) for months--until i had to FMQ my first quilt on it. it was absolutely awful. skipped stitches ALL the time. i could hear and sense the machine when it skipped a thread but there was nothing i could do about it except go over it again which looks awful. the worst was right next to a seam--going over a bulky seam was possible but not when sewing right next to a seam.
so i would just have to go back and forth on the skipped part and hope for the best after washing it--but it looks terrible! i'm not a professional quilter but i've quilted all my quilts on the Bernina, so i know it wasn't user error--but a machine problem. it also made me sad to think that even though i'm not selling my quilts, that i couldn't sell them with that nasty looking quilting on it.
i brought it back to the local dealer (twice!) who checked the machine and said there wasn't nothing wrong with it. now the technician is also one of the owners of the store, and i could be wrong, but he has this honest vibe about him--i didn't think he was lying to me, i just thought this machine, this "Brother" just couldn't handle FMQing like a Bernina could.
i googled endlessly to see if there was a solution out there. a blogger with a juki said she sometimes had problems with skipping but using a heavy top-stitch needle helped, so i went and bought some 100/16 top-stitch needles--nope! the dealer suggested titanium needles because they slip in and out a touch faster and this is a timing issue (but since it sews two pieces of fabric together perfectly, it's not really a machine problem) but that didn't help either. so frustrating.
i started dreaming of buying a juki after all. fortunately/unfortunately that shady LQS is the only juki dealer in town now so that stopped me. also this machine was only a year old--not crazy expensive like my Bernina, but not one to just throw away either. i thought about re-selling it, but felt uneasy about selling it to a fellow quilter knowing that it couldn't FMQ satisfactorily. if you're only planning to sew straight stiches and to FMQ, only 50% of the functions were working!
i don't remember exactly how i heard about it, but i got wind of a Brother 1500 yahoo group so as a last-ditch effort, i joined to the group. looking through the archives, this was one of the first topics to pop up--skipped stitches!! and the solution was so easy--STRETCH NEEDLES! it almost seemed too easy but i went out immediately and got a pack of them and that was it--not a single skipped stitch afterwards. (well, one or two, but after adjusting the stitch length and remembering to lower the feed dogs, all is well).
it's almost too good to be true--but it is true! i had to write this all down for catharsis--but also hopefully to help other Brother owners out there who are googling for help. i just finished quilting two queen-size quilts and in the middle of a king-size one and it's going perfectly--i'm remembering how peaceful it is to just sit and FMQ. hooray!